After weeks of disappointing box office, summer 2023 finally staged a comeback thanks to Barbenheimer, the grassroots movement to make Barbie and Oppenheimer a double feature for the ages, and it worked. Barbie opened with an estimated $155 million domestic (with $182 million internationally), and Oppenheimer scooped up $80 million domestic and $93 million internationally. Both films MASSIVELY overperformed even the most optimistic projections—and will likely come in even higher when the final tallies are released—leading to the biggest domestic box office weekend since Avengers: Endgame in 2019.
This is GREAT news, and if anything made sense, this would be a time for the studios to go on a greenlighting spree, scooping up original ideas because CLEARLY, that is what people want. I am not ruling out that a superhero movie will come along and post up a big weekend—they have done it since the pandemic and will do it again—but if we’re seeing any kind of fatigue from audiences lately, it’s franchise fatigue. Even Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, a legitimately good movie, isn’t faring well. It dipped 64% in its second weekend, unquestionably hurt by the loss of IMAX/premium large format screens, but also…maybe people just aren’t feeling the urgency for the Nth movie in a franchise, ANY franchise, regardless of how good, or not, the movie itself is.
(Of course, the other side of this coin is Avatar: The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick, last year’s biggest movies. But they’re both sequels to films a decade or more old, and especially in Maverick’s case, it plays like a standalone adventure. Those films have more in common with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, bringing a beloved film series back to cinemas after a long period away.)
But nothing makes sense anymore, so don’t expect the double strike to end any time soon. Despite having 300 million reasons to see that there is value in creativity and original ideas, the studios are not going to return to negotiations in good faith. They SHOULD, they should absolutely be prioritizing ending both strikes and getting people back to work coming up with the next great thing, but I am convinced they simply do not want to do that.
The thing about endless franchises is that they put the power in the studios’ hands. The role of writer and director within a franchise machine is IP maintenance, which increasingly became a problem, for example, for the MCU over the 2010s, as the quirky swings of the early phases gave way to increasingly bland entries later in the series as each new filmmaker conformed to the house style. There were exceptions like Thor: Ragnarok, but there is no denying the overall effect of same-ifying the films, a problem that is even more apparent now that the “it’s all connected” marketing tool collapsed after Endgame. BUT the MCU made Kevin Feige a household name because there is no question who holds the power at Marvel.
But it really looks like audiences are craving new stories that don’t come with reams of homework to understand. I’ve seen the “but Barbie is based on IP” argument all weekend, and while yes, Barbie is an existing product, the movie itself isn’t based on anything. You don’t have to know the complete history of fifteen previous movies to understand it. Same with Oppenheimer, which is based on a biography, American Prometheus. You don’t have to have seen Tesla, Einstein, and Bohr first, or even have read the book. These films are adapted from existing things, but they stand on their own as pieces of cinema.
The other big box office story this year, The Super Mario Bros. ($1.3 billion), is, like Barbie, based on pre-existing characters but is an original story idea. It’s not so much that the concept is 100% original, people don’t seem to mind pre-existing characters or book adaptations, it’s about whether or not the film itself is fresh and new. Barbie has a laundry list of records to its name now, including the best opening weekend for a film directed by a woman, and Oppenheimer is on pace to be one of Christopher Nolan’s biggest movies ever, rivaling The Dark Knight. I just don’t know how anyone can look at the Barbenheimer weekend and not realize the value in original ideas and concepts, unless, of course, you’re some kind of psychopathic CEO hoping to starve artists out of their homes rather than pay them.
Which is, of course, the crux of the problem. The current leadership in Hollywood does not see writers and actors as their partners, they see writers and actors as roadblocks to profit hoarding. There are frustrated folks in the upper studio ranks worried about how all this will damage relationships they’ve been nurturing for years or decades, in some cases, but those people are outnumbered. They are no longer the majority of people in charge, they have no seat at the table.
It has long been true that there are a shocking number of people in Hollywood who don’t actually like movies, but at least they always understood the remit, even if they didn’t like it—make things people want to see. The current class of leaders, though, aren’t even willing to do that. They are bent on making only what they want us to see and damn the consequences if it drives the industry into the ground. Hell, they’re already moving films back because they can’t do promo during the strike, pushing Challengers back to April 2024.
Can you IMAGINE the press Zendaya could do with her little white boys at Venice? A HUGE part of Barbenheimer is the virality of the press, how each film built on the other’s momentum, and publicists SHOULD be scrambling to try and generate that kind of buzz for the fall festivals, but instead, we’re debating moving Dune: Part Two to next year. Dune, a film with buzzy stars and a massive, A-list cast…just like Barbie and Oppenheimer. It’s practically custom built to replicate the Barbenheimer phenomenon, but instead of banking ANOTHER win, Warner Bros. Discovery might shelve it.
Down is up, day is night, nothing makes sense. The cold, hard data is telling us that audiences absolutely WILL go to the movies, they’d just rather see something new when they do. But instead of capitalizing on that, the studios will continue punishing artists for wanting things like rent and grocery money. Thanks, I hate it.
Attached - Barbie director Greta Gerwig at Good Morning America in New York last week.